Johnson County’s woes deserve more attention

03/20/2014 12:43 PM

03/20/2014 12:43 PM

Johnson County is the biggest, richest and healthiest county in Kansas.

Its population recently surged past 560,000 people. Median household income tops $75,000 a year. And the 2013 Kansas County Health Rankings — praising its lower rates of obesity and smoking — put the county at No. 1 on the state’s list.

However, take off the rose-colored glasses, and Johnson County’s gnawing problems suddenly come more sharply into focus.

Higher percentages of residents are struggling to make ends meet. Roads and other public infrastructure are aging and require higher taxes to repair. Older parts of the county are becoming blighted, seeking publicly backed reinvestment plans.

These are the kinds of troubles and warning signs that deserve more attention, especially

in a growing, affluent county.

• Numbers of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches in the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts have grown dramatically. Shawnee Mission’s rate was slightly above 10 percent in the 2002-03 school year but today is closing in on 40 percent. The rate in Olathe grew from just above 10 percent to more than 25 percent in the same period.

• The total number of county residents living at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty rate doubled from 3.4 percent in 2000 to 6.8 percent in 2012. Residents living at or below 200 percent of poverty went from 10.8 percent to 17.6 percent — roughly from 1 in every 10 people in the county to 1 in every 6.

• Economic development projects loom that will cost lots of taxpayer dollars to accomplish. That includes whatever might become of the long-troubled Metcalf South Shopping Center in Overland Park, the long-delayed Mission Gateway project and the rejuvenation of at least one older shopping center in Leawood. Meanwhile, cities continue to lavish public incentives on greenfield projects, making even more subsidies necessary to attract developers to urban parts of the county.

• In Olathe last year, voters approved a sales tax increase just so the city could keep up with maintaining its aging roads. Other cities have taken, or likely will have to take, similar actions.

• Progress for two of Johnson County’s most-loved and most-trumpeted public assets — its fine libraries and its extensive parks system — has stagnated. Cuts in staff and hours of operation have hit the libraries, while development of parkland has fallen behind original plans.

• Finally, the county that grew up on flight from the core is suffering its own flight to exurban areas, as De Soto and Gardner blossom, and the fringes of Shawnee, Olathe and Overland Park add rooftops. It’s one reason the costly Johnson County Gateway project is underway to make room for more vehicles where interstates 435 and 35 and Kansas 10 come together.

To be clear, all of these concerns don’t overwhelm the many good things occurring in the county.

Also, no easy answers exist for creating higher paying jobs, wooing more people to live in the urban core or developing a far better transit system.

But these also are the kinds of challenges that ought to get significant attention from County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert next week when he delivers his State of the County luncheon speech to the suit-and-tie crowd paying $30 each at The Ritz Charles in southern Overland Park.

The prognosis isn’t promising. Eilert’s speech is titled “Where Opportunity Lives,” and it will point out the county’s low unemployment rate, its growing-again housing market and — a particular favorite of county officials — the fact it has the state’s lowest mill levy rate.

Those are all positive factors.

But the county’s political, business and civic leaders ought to be more engaged in using that tremendous wealth to more aggressively attack the county’s social, economic and redevelopment needs.

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